The Authoritarian Threat: The Hijacking of “Soft Power”

Issue Date January 2016
Volume 27
Issue 1
Page Numbers 49-63
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In the post–Cold War period, the democracies pursued a strategy of engagement with authoritarian states in the belief that this approach would yield mutual benefits and lead to political reform in the autocracies. Instead, authoritarian regimes have turned the tables on the democracies. Exploiting globalization and the opportunities presented by integration with the West, authoritarian states have set out to undermine the very international institutions that welcomed them by employing a malign mirror image of “soft power.” Through the manipulation of the Internet, the establishment of pseudo–civil society organizations and “zombie” election monitors, as well as sophisticated state-run propaganda outlets, authoritarian trendsetters such as China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela have hijacked the concept of “soft power.”

About the Author

Christopher Walker is vice-president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy. He is the author (with Shanthi Kalathil and Jessica Ludwig) of “The Cutting Edge of Sharp Power,” which appeared in the January 2020 issue of the Journal of Democracy and “What is Sharp Power?” from the July 2018 issue of the Journal.

View all work by Christopher Walker